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On the Potomac River, Rescuers Battle the Elements and Outdated Equipment

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D.C. Fire and EMS fast response boat.
Patrick Madden
D.C. Fire and EMS fast response boat.

Looks can be deceiving. It's a picture-perfect Saturday morning on the Potomac. But the river – swollen from heavy rains – is dangerously fast and still cold enough to cause hypothermia in minutes.

Out of nowhere, a tiny inflatable dingy carrying a man and woman rides up behind our fire boat.

Lt. Steve Van Briesen calls them over.

"You didn't bring a life jacket?" Van Briesen asks. "You know the river is like two feet away from flood stage right now."

The other firefighter on the boat, Marine Pilot Richard Schaffer tosses them a life-jacket, and the dingy is escorted to safety.

"It's innocence," Schaffer says. "They just don't know better. I don't think its stupidity, but this is a very bad time to be out without a life jacket."

While on patrol, the two-man team also plan, prepare and practice for an almost infinite number of disaster scenarios.

"There's Metro rail orange line," says Schaffer. "There's the Amtrak CSX route with hazardous material and passenger trains. There's boats flying arounD... There's a 600-passenger dinner boat right there... There's aircraft flying overhead – you got it all right here!"

But the real challenge? Their equipment is old. The main fire boat was built in the 1960's. The smaller boat the men were in had some issues as well, like when Von Briesen had to manually fix one of the back engines.

"You not supposed to have to do that," Van Briesen says. "It's old. It should've been replaced five, 10 years ago. Absolutely. It's a huge issue. It's also a safety issue. This boat doesn't have radar. This is your public safety boat right here."

"It's challenging to come to work and get in the mindset that I may have to give my life today," says Shaffer. "Is it going to be because I did something important and heroic, or is it going to be because I didn't have the equipment and I died because of stupid reasons?"

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